Ad HD, or not Ad HD, that be the question

Should one, or should one not replace one’s DVD collection with Blu-Ray movies? And if so, why?

I swear, the majority of movie watchers wouldn’t know the difference between a 3rd generation VHS-VHS-VHS copy (if you didn’t grow up during the Eighties you’ll probably have little idea what I’m talking about) and a full blast raw 4K cinematic projection (welcome to the 21st Century) if it came up and bit them in the pancreas through a shower curtain on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The only reason most people would go for a better home movie medium is that it’s fashionable. We video quality connoisseurs are sadly outnumbered by those who simply don’t see, who simply don’t understand, or who simply don’t care.

Back in the day when home video was introduced to, well, the homes, the BetaMAX format was awesome, and would probably eat VHS for breakfast if it could have kept it down afterwards. You could record a TV program or a movie straight off the aerial, and playback quality of the recording would be heaps better than any VHS original, let alone a VHS home recording. My only regret is that I never got my hands on one of those machines (I tried to talk my parents into buying one, but “we” had decided we were going to get a dishwasher before we got a VCR – this was a real matter of priority in those days, kids – and I suspect that they kept postponing the dishwasher on purpose). I did get to watch BetaMAX at some friends’ places, the few who had dads with sufficient taste for proper gadgets and the will to pay just that little extra for it and didn’t need to worry about dishwashers. Movies leeched off the antenna were nearly broadcast quality (and I’m talking PAL here, pal). We did argue with the other lads who had less of an eye for quality and, consequently, were in possession of VHS machines, and their argument in favour of the VHS format as far as “superior quality” went was … *drum roll* … that there were far more movies available to buy or rent on VHS. So availability trumped quality, hands down. This is among the things that would threaten to make me lose faith in Humanity if I didn’t have an overweight and twisted sense of humour.

I have some 300+ DVD movies (don’t ask me how that happened; I honestly don’t know), which have now been merged with my better half’s collection and … well, we haven’t counted them all yet, but my efforts and success in making them all fit within the confinement of one single bookshelf with room for more would have either impressed Einstein for making exquisite and elaborate use of space-time curvature, or startled him into rewriting his theory of general relativity. As of yet, only about a handful are Blu-Ray editions. This fact is probably subject to change over the next few years, but upgrading the entire collection would rival the United States defence budget and is as such out of the question. For now. Small steps.

We own a four or five year old 32″ LCD widescreen of the HD-Ready flavour, with “HD-Ready” meaning it doesn’t go the entire mile to displaying 1080p, though it will scale a 1080p image down to its native resolution of 1366×768 pixels. Most of my our DVDs, the ones that have been well and properly made, play very well on it, in the sense that if you didn’t know you were watching a DVD, you wouldn’t even think to notice that it wasn’t a Blu-Ray. Others are less magnificent. “Alien” disappointed greatly in that respect, looked pretty much like a green blur, and has been upgraded. “Lord of the Rings”, on the other hand, may be able to keep up a bit longer. Except that I really, really, really want that one on Blu-Ray. Extended edition, of course. I’m a geek, I know.

With a screen size of 32″, watching from the more or less normal distance of about ten feet (3 metres), you don’t really notice the difference between HD-Ready (720p) and full HD (1080p). I had to demonstrate that to the guy at the shop when I bought this one, just to shut him up about why I ought to double my TV-acquisition budget. Lined up a full HD and a HD-Ready screen side by side, both 32″ in size, and ran the same HD video feed on both. He couldn’t tell which was which (he tried, but guessed wrong, though to his defence I swapped the labels too). You will notice the difference at a watching distance of about four inches. Barely. And as I said, most DVDs fare reasonably well too, in the sense that you only really notice if you watch the same video on DVD and Blu-Ray back-to-back.

Up the screen size to 40″ or more, and you’re in a different arena. The “HD-Ready vs full HD” battle is pretty much moot, seeing as more or less every new TV you find today is full HD anyway. And when you get there, my friend, you will notice the difference. But it’s still up to you whether DVD is good enough to watch.

One thing to be on the look-out for, though, is DVDs that have widescreen image but are letterboxed into a 4:3 frame. When played back on a 16:9 widescreen TV, those will either show up as quarter-screen picture (half-height, half-width) with a huge, black frame all around it, or terribly coarse as if made up of LEGO blocks so that you might as well be watching VHS. You don’t want that! You want Anamorphic Widescreen. Standard DVD has a 4:3 image (720×576 pixels for PAL, or 720×480 for NTSC). Anamorphic Widescreen means squishing a 16:9 image (1024×576 PAL / 1024×576 NTSC) onto a 4:3 frame for storage on the disc, then stretching it back to 16:9 on the screen during playback. This is similar to what’s done with some movies on film reels, to give a wider “panoramic” image than the width of the reel would normally allow. There is some loss of horizontal detail in the process, but that’s barely noticeable even if you really, really look really really hard.

But be painfully aware that some DVD releases claim to be Anamorphic Widescreen even though they’re not! I have three in my collection that I’ve discovered so far; “Fifth Element”, “2010: Odyssey Two” and “Scent of a Woman”. I didn’t notice these blasphemies before I switched from an old 4:3 TV to my current widescreen one a few years ago, meaning that by the time they were discovered it was too late to throw a tantrum in the video store about it. I have already replaced the “Fifth Element” DVD with its Blu-Ray counterpart, and the other two are soon to come.

“There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.”
—Douglas Adams

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